POLAND is where the great killing began. The most terrible of all wars. I
was there this year as Lent was beginning. In one week I traversed all the 40
days to Easter. I visited hell and I rediscovered heaven.
Warsaw more than any other city — more even than Hiroshima — is a monument
to death and resurrection. In 1939, 1944 and 1945 bitter battles raged in the
city. Finally, what was left of it was dynamited block by block by the
retreating SS troops. These men, with the skull and crossbones on their
helmets, were faithful to their insignia. Death was their business. Men. Like
us. Like it or not, our brothers.
Warsaw stands again. A proud monument to man’s triumph over destruction. A
city lovingly reconstructed, its older parts in perfect 18th-century style.
Where once thousands of walled-in Jews perished in the ghetto, there stand
tall, gay blocks of flats. Children play where children were murdered.
But history has known other Warsaws. My Lenten pilgrimage took me beyond it:
south through deep snow to Auschwitz, to the place where the apparently
impossible had become macabre reality. Here four million of us were brutally —
worse than that, methodically and scientifically — murdered. To walk through
this place is to know that hell is not a future possibility but a present
reality, in man. It is to know the same of heaven. They coexist in the present.
I stood in the concrete enclosure where 10,000 children unknowingly — or all
too knowingly — were gassed. Yesterday’s Holy Innocents.
That chamber was built for children only. The great mount of their shoes is
still there for all to see. And their clothes. Even their toys.
The chemists had by experiment discovered that four pounds of Cyclon B
crystals suffice to kill 1500 people. It required many tins marked with the
skull and crossbones to kill millions. The four great incinerators could not
devour all this human flesh. The fires of hell could not burn us all. And so we
were thrown into great pits dug before by us.
There is much more than this at Auschwitz. Its impact is beyond emotion.
Bales of human hair and also the finished product, lengths of coat lining. And
the many, many gallows. The barbed wire, electrified, into which men ran to end
it all. And the punishment-block — a medieval torture chamber with 20th century
refinements. Empty now. The blood-stained floors dry.
I stood, too, in the cell in which it is known that heaven triumphed.
Maximilian Kolbe lived there without food for weeks, the cell filled with
hostages condemned to death by starvation. Kolbe had asked to go there in place
of a man with children. He was a Franciscan monk. The last in the cell to die.
He prayed and sang until his resurrection dawned. The crucifix and Madonna he
scratched in the wall with his nails remain there.
There were other Maximilian Kolbes. Their names no one lives to remember.
Jews, Communists, Christians, one in their martyrdom for humanity.
My young Polish guide, a charming girl of about 18 hoping to study English
at Cracow University, took me to the light of day, back through the camp gates
with their ironic inscription — “Work liberates”. It was more true than the
German masters had known. The work done here in slavery ended in death:
“IN the confines of my cell,” wrote Hoess who had ruled over this kingdom of
death, “I have come to the bitter realisation what atrocious crimes against
humanity I have committed. I pay with my life for this responsibility. I wish
and hope that the fact of my having admitted and disclosed all these crimes
will, for ever after, prevent the arising of even the remotest possibility of
such atrocities occuring again.”
Because men still plan for hell while they hope for heaven, the
possibilities of recurrence today are not remote. And we are all guilty. And
Christ has taken our guilt upon himself and will suffer it until we accept and
share his forgiveness.
This article was originally published in the Church Times on 9 April
1965, soon after the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the liberation of